The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost received a rousing audience response on opening this past weekend and I am so proud of the thrilling work of my cast and crew. Hearing the squeals of delight and excitement from the young patrons in the house gives an incomparable sense of accomplishment. I have found, in my short career at Lifeline, that creating theatre for children is a very unique joy and challenge, with deep rewards for a story well told. For me most recently, the addition of a child of my own in my life has made a deep connection to the work.
My first directing gig ever was in the spring of 2006, directing Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Kipling shorts titled Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and other “Just So” Stories. I remember how thrilled I was at the honor and opportunity to helm the ship for one of Lifeline’s prized production slots. I also remember a terrifying sense of dread that I wouldn’t really know what I was doing, that I wouldn’t be able to form a rehearsal process to inspire the actors or guide a creative process for the designers. The feedback process and gentle counsel from the ensemble supported me greatly and taught me that the most important thing to focus on in any theatrical process is ensuring that the story is being told. Working side by side with Christina, I learned the value of imaginative theatricality as a way to encourage investment from the children. Christina showed me that children are quick-witted and attentive when given the chance to engage. Presenting Rikki-Tikki to its first audiences taught me something else about children: they are honest. With laughter and giggles, shouting out at the actors, bouncing or squirming in their seats, singing along of their own accord, what have you, in the very moment of presenting a play to children, you know whether you’ve got them interested.
Photo by Kevin D. Gawley
The next show I would direct for children would be 2009’s Flight of the Dodo, adapted by Rob Kauzlaric, with whom I experienced great success in our director/adaptor relationship with The Island of Dr. Moreau. I was eager to get to work on Dodo for the sheer pleasure of his hilarious script treatment and the exciting demand of placing four singing, flightless birds in a hot air balloon floating through the sky and going on various adventures. My directing experience had been through some interesting challenges at this point and I had the bold impulse to conceptualize a meta-theatrical construct on the way the play would be presented. I created a “Stage Manager” character who, with a wink and a nod to the audience, would manipulate the scenery and puppets around the central characters who took no notice of her themselves. The kids LOVED her and appreciated how much hard work she had to do, running at a full sprint through the majority of the show. It taught me another truism about children: that they are inherently empathetic and kind-hearted. They saw and they cared what the actress was going through, and enjoyed her storytelling all the more. They are able to quickly grasp layered concepts and invest in them so wholly that their belief takes on wings of its own, buoyed by their open hearts. It was inspiring to witness their reaction to the show every time I came back to enjoy it.
Photo by Victoria DeIorio
I wasn’t to direct another show for children until last year’s Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, also adapted by Rob. The whole concept of the show was silly fun, all in all, about a naked mole rat named Wilbur who likes to wear clothes and is ousted in a society where clothing is NOT an option. Before that process started however, my own son arrived. Gus Carlson Holmquist was born at 8:33pm on September 12, 2011, weighing in at 10 pounds even and 20 inches long. As he took his first squeaky breaths, I just marveled at him. Those of you with children of your own will smile at this, but as I looked at Gus I felt that nothing would ever be the same as it was; l now knew a deeper kind of love, I felt a stronger connection to my wife than I ever had before, I had a renewed purpose in my life.
Suddenly, my perspective on what Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed was really about began to shift. It became important to me to focus attention on the theme of acceptance and tolerance inherent in the story, and how we can be transformed by our own efforts to understand and embrace differences. Gus was five months old when we were ready to open Naked Mole Rat, and I remember bringing him to the theatre one early morning before rehearsal. I held him in my arms as he looked out at the actors with his soft jaw and curious eyes and I told my cast that I wanted to direct this play for the opportunity to maybe, just maybe, contribute to a better world for my son. I didn’t plan on saying that, but it was true. It’s not that I lost any enjoyment of the novelty of entertaining children, but there was a new awareness in me of the incredible influence we can have on our children by telling them stories. And several parents who brought their kids to see Naked Mole Rat reported back greater expressions of empathy, which was the greatest praise of our work that I could hope for.
What I experience parenting my toddler is how much he learns by reflecting or repeating back what he’s seen and heard. That’s an essential part of growing up and being in relationship with others. And I know now more than ever what a precious and vital responsibility we have as theatre artists to encourage, enlighten, educate, ennoble, and yes, entertain. The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost has been crafted by adaptor Scott Barsotti with great care and attention on themes of feeling fear, feeling brave and being loved and cared for unconditionally. It brings me such gladness to see the kids in the audience snuggle up to their caregiver in a slightly spooky moment, or ask their buddy next to them, “Are you scared?” Simply by engaging them in our story, we have given them permission, in the moment, to acknowledge their feelings and communicate them, and that’s incredibly gratifying. It is times like that where I count my blessings and good fortune that brought me to Lifeline Theatre.
Photo by Kelsey Jorissen